Government power over the definition of legitimate relationships is at the heart of the entire marriage debate. Today, government is the sole entity that so many Americans are looking to for defining marriage’s legal parameters. And yet, until quite recently in history, marriage had never been something under any government’s sole jurisdiction. Marriage existed long before the state, just as many basic systems of exchange did. It did not become a so-called “pillar of the state,” in fact, until at least the eighteenth century. When the American government in particular took control of marriage, it started out as a means of controlling who could and could not wed, a way to curb interracial commitments as well as polygamous ones. Now, the debate for many is merely one over the extent of tax benefits: should I and other Americans only have to subsidize the marriages of straight couples, or those of same-sex couples as well?
Instead of supporting either of these schemes, we ought to start advocating true freedom of association and diversity, without obligating anyone in society to support someone else’s personal relationship with tax dollars. Government-sanctioned marriage foists such a twisted meaning of marriage upon us; it merely forces all private contracts to be part of a larger, state-sponsored enterprise. But the entire institution of government-issued marriage licensure can and should be done away with. By that same token, all the tax subsidies and legal benefits that go along with it should also be removed. Instead, any and all private commitments should be codified and carried out in a deregulated environment, with such agreements being legitimized by religious groups, secular entities, or individuals simply professing themselves to be married of their own accord.
As a society, we ought to start reflecting more on the idea of a “marriage license” and what it actually means. What a license designates is permission that has been granted to do something, specifically a visual indication that such permission has been given. Wedding ceremonies are irrelevant. It is the government-issued piece of paper and some officiator, somewhere, that ultimately matters.
Many of us don’t think much about the implication of this. But the government truly does have a peculiar role with marriage licensing. Edward A. Zelinsky, professor at Cardozo Law School in New York, rightly calls modern civil marriage a matter of government having a “legal monopoly in defining that institution.” It is not the minister or the secular representative that ultimately legitimizes any marriage. Rather, it is the ruling government that does so.
It was actually the French Revolution of 1789 to 1799 that introduced this, the role of the state as the authorizer, legitimizer, and upholder of marriages between individuals. It was not until the eighteenth century, in fact, that the idea of compulsory civil marriage even began to take hold throughout Europe and North America. No state-sanctioned marriage is traditional. Rather, it’s a modern novelty. It’s high time that conservatives became consistent, recognizing that same-sex marriages shouldn’t be subsidized by the government any more than straight ones should. And liberals, likewise, ought to be more willing to get the government out of the business of approving and disapproving private relationships.
It is entirely senseless for conservatives to demand sanctity in marriage. The entire institution is already polluted by having to derive its legitimacy from a government. But for the liberal or even non-religious, the idea ought to remain the same. The government has no reason for being the third party in anyone’s relationship; it should not even be taking on the role of encouraging relationships, lest it inevitably favor certain types over others. The government became unspeakably intrusive when it began interfering with voluntary, private commitments.
What if marriage were a contract outside of government jurisdiction? In that case, if either party claimed that the terms was violated, those stipulations would merely need to be enforced through the normal court system, like any other agreement. Any type of group, whether religious or secular, could assist partners in working out these private marital contracts. Or, if someone preferred it, they could devise their own unique agreement. While many would still rely on a religious form of contract, others could have their own respective choices in the matter. The state monopoly over legitimizing marriages would be finished.
It is sad that the argument over marriage’s meaning can essentially be reduced to one about the extent of our government’s taxation and subsidy base. Liberal progressives, for all their talk about civil rights, fail to realize that they are fighting for a monolithic, authoritarian government to have the sole ability in defining proper contractual agreements. Social conservatives, with all their arguments stemming from perceived traditionalism, fail to grasp that they are inadvertently supporting continued government intrusion into what they largely describe to be a sacred commitment.
This entire debate could be resolved in one swift motion, with the U.S. Congress simply deciding to either extend tax benefits to those who aren’t yet included (the unmarried) or abolish them for everyone. Personally, I agree with the latter option. I see no reason why I should have to pay for your private relationship, or lack thereof, any more than I would expect you to pay for mine. Ultimately, same-sex marriages shouldn’t be subsidized any more than the straight ones should.
An op-ed by Chris Bacavis